Old River Lane campaigners call on East Herts Council to ditch demolition plans for Charringtons House
Yvonne Estop-Wood, a member of the cross-party working group on Old River Lane (ORL), outlines objections to the demolition of Charringtons House as part of East Herts Council's scheme and why reuse is more responsible.
A new five-screen cinema at Old River Lane will require demolition of Charringtons House. It might not be your favourite building, but demolition would be an affront to all of us trying to tackle climate change. And it is the wrong message from a council setting policy for the environment.
Demolition of a sound building wastes resources. Adapting it is responsible and responsive to local interests.
East Herts Council owns the building and rents office space to companies. The sign board lists 10 organisations, including the council itself – this is its Bishop's Stortford outpost for council services.
Built in 1971, this building is safe, useful and in good condition. The entrance lobbies, stairs and lifts are set to the side so the floor areas are unimpeded. The plan is to end the easy-income leases, knock it down, build a cinema and a new road. Easy.
EHC is committed to act on climate change. In July 2019, it agreed to tackle climate change in our district, to "do everything we can in supporting the whole of East Herts to become carbon neutral by 2030" as well as "develop a strategy to reduce its own emissions" and "work with partners to ensure that where at all possible it supports climate-friendly regulations".
Cllr Graham McAndrew said: "East Herts Council's key role is to educate, facilitate and encourage behaviour change when it comes to tackling climate change." Herts County Council adds sharp focus: its Sustainable Herts Strategy 2020 commits to "send nothing to landfill by 2030".
As awareness of the climate crisis has grown, retention and adaptation of old offices is now seen as more responsible than demolishing and starting again. All buildings have embodied carbon – the single-use fossil fuels that were burned to make the steel, glass and brick, and to construct the building.
Demolition dumps all that. "Embodied carbon emissions can't be reduced later – they have already happened," says the Building Research Establishment (BRE), the UK centre of building science.
Calculating the embodied carbon cost of a building must form part of any environment impact assessment. A new building duplicates that cost with new materials and construction energy, albeit with some greener materials and methods. "The greenest building is the one that already exists," The Times, June 2021.
"Building is one of the most polluting activities in the UK economy... The key to bringing the environmental impact of architecture in line with planetary limits is... less demolition, more refurbishment," The Guardian, March 2021.
This is not a radical wheeze – just ask the Government and hard-bitten developers. The Government introduced rules in 2016 allowing any office building to be converted to housing.
Developers fell over themselves to convert crummy buildings with gusto, albeit leading to a lot of sub-standard homes. By changing perceptions, office buildings are reused and upgraded.
"We start with an existing building, then try to make the unattractive attractive. We follow the creative, digital economy and see where the talent of the future wants to live, work and play," Robert Wolstenholme, Trilogy Real Estate: Monocle 24, 'The Urbanist', February 2020.
The highest honour in the architecture world, the Pritzker Prize, was awarded this year to French architects whose most impressive projects are all refurbishments. "Their victory... signals a shift in priorities among the world's best city-makers. If embraced more widely, this could transform how buildings everywhere are regenerated..." The Guardian, March 2021.
The energy efficiency of Charringtons House is based on materials, boilers, ventilation and insulation. In a conversion, energy efficiency would be improved with glazing and generating energy on-site.
An existing building can meet very high standards, including use of south-facing and flat roofs for solar electricity. On the exterior, living plant walls would act as natural insulation and shading. This is planned for Hartham Leisure Centre in Hertford.
The building is 10m (33ft) wide with a concrete frame and fixed floor heights. Architects and engineers can work within these constraints to enable beneficial new uses, by adapting the entrances, extending the ground floor and altering internal facilities.
The building could be used for workspace, such as offices, studios, workshops, research; or education such as teaching rooms, studios, labs; or a new public library.
But there is campaigning that needs to be done: VAT charges 20% on refurbishment work but 0% on residential new-builds.
The Government is under pressure to change those rules. Gloucestershire County Council refurbished its 1960s Shire Hall – they say that "an eyesore, tired and inefficient, was transformed into an elegant and highly sustainable workplace". It entailed "energy-efficient re-cladding and window replacement; re-engineering of work spaces." The BRE says: "Shire Hall's 'retrofit' aligns with the Government's Construction 2025 strategy."
Windmill Green, Manchester, was an office building left empty for seven years. The developer chose to keep the building and its embodied carbon, adding small areas of new building. Now it is the "most green office building in the city".
Successful regeneration at ORL is not dependent on the space Charringtons House occupies. The adjacent car park will not be needed when Northgate End multi-storey is complete. This area is twice the area of the existing building and could accommodate businesses, shops, even a cinema without tearing down the building.
This useful building can be adapted to work for years to come, like Coopers has over a couple of centuries.
"Not taking rapid and far-reaching action on embodied carbon now is undeniably kicking the can down the road," BRE. You don't have to knock it down to have a knockout development.
It is prudent to adapt and will help meet the council's commitment. It would be a feather in the Old River Lane cap.
* Yvonne Estop-Wood is a planner and urban designer with experience in local government.